Leo Bill (centre) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Anyone staging a muddy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is claiming territory firmly staked out by Robert LePage in his famous early 1990s pool of mud production. Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Young Vic production, which turns the entire stage into a ploughed field, advances his already strong credentials as a confident, original interpreter of classics. The excitement from his recent Young Vic triumphs with a Beyoncé-heavy production of The Changeling, and a sex-doll Measure for Measure, carries over into this dark, funny, unconventional staging of a familiar play. He breathes new life into the play, as unsettling as any Shakespeare wrote, confronting us with again with the strangeness we have learned to accept. His Dream is a festival turning sour, Glastonbury after everyone has gone home.
A backdrop of mirrors shows the audience to itself and makes the parallel, identity switching otherworlds of the play a constant presence. Hill-Gibbins’ mud is different to LePage’s, thicker and claggier resulting in less splashing, more staggering. It is a field in England – the Midlands literally brought on stage. During the course of the evening it is gleefully smeared over the cast. Initially, the heavy clay slows everyone down, rooting the performers to the spot. The cast, on stage at all times, stand stock still when not performing, providing the scenery as the action plays around them. Later, the furrows tread down and movement becomes more fluid, as the characters are released from Athenian concerns to act out their desires in the woods. The forgiving surface turns out to be ideal for physical comedy, with Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander repeatedly face-planted or body-slammed into the mud, which is both hilarious and brutal.
The production becomes more than just conceptual theatre through a series of unconventional performances in familiar roles. Anastasia Hille is a funny and likeable Titania. Lloyd Hutchinson plays Puck as a washed up, Ulster Eddie Izzard in string-vest and lipstick, with a cynicism deep enough for any occasion. His ‘girdle around the world’ drips with sarcasm. Leo Bill overturns traditional ideas of Bottom, thin, nervous and damaged rather than pompous and large. His manner is manic and desperate, and his performance pure comedy as he staggers round and round the stage, accompanying himself from the Top Gun soundtrack.Aaron Heffernan turns Flute the Bellows Mender into a star, playing him as a butch Irish boy whose with not much interest in Thisbe but lots in the ladies.
Hill-Gibbins’ Dream is condensed into two hours, which slims the text but allows higher levels of physicality in the demanding mud. It has been described as a dark production, but there is more than just revisionism going on. The sheer strangeness of events is allowed to dominate, which in turn shows us a play that is anything but comfortable. The cast becomes increasingly bedraggled and confused as events move beyond their control. By the end, the four lovers appear traumatised by what has happened to them, and the final dance has more than a hint of Bergman about it. The Dream is all too real, and that mud’s not coming out in a hurry.